July 22, 2022
It’s not often gamers get the opportunity to experience a title that was never released in their region, and in Australia in particular there were several RPG’s in the 90’s that didn’t make their way down under for one reason or another. Live A Live is a particularly curious case, as it released on the Super Famicom (or Super Nintendo) exclusively in Japan in 1994. Directed by Takashi Tokita, known for his work on Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV, Live A Live has, somewhat randomly, been remade with HD-2D visuals, bringing this strange but extraordinary adventure to our shores for the very first time almost thirty years later.
The tale of Live A Live is still quite unique today, so I can’t imagine how it would have blown my mind back when I was a 90’s kid. The story features eight different characters across eight different time periods, with one as far back as prehistoric times and one set in the distant future, and everything in between. You can choose the order in which you tackle each of the chapters, and each one has its own specific story beats and gameplay elements that are unique to them, linked together by one turn-based tactics style of combat that is consistent across all characters. This makes for a compelling experience that moves at a swift pace, but spends just enough time within each of its smaller narratives to make you care about each individual journey, as you ponder how it all ties together.
Live A Live is ambitious, with each tale trying to do something completely different. Imperial China features a story of a Shifu Kung Fu master, where you spend your days training your young disciples to ensure your legacy lives on. In The Wild West, you play as a cowboy hero who needs to help a town defend themselves against outlaws by placing traps and preparing for a classic Western showdown. There’s a more “traditional RPG” chapter in the middle ages with random encounters and dungeons to explore, while another chapter is a riff on Street Fighter, where you play as a warrior challenging others to 1v1 battles to be the world’s greatest combatant.
My favourite chapter is one that gives you multiple paths to completion, offering the chance to replay it for a different outcome. In the Twilight of Edo Japan, you play as a stealthy ninja, exploring a castle and carrying out a secret mission. The castle itself weaves and connects in different ways, with many different buildings and rooms to search for items – or, you can just bounce around on the rooftops, ninja style. You have the option to take an aggressive approach by killing any enemy you see, or there is a stealthier approach that has you avoiding combat and sticking to the shadows. The trade-off here is that by being violent, you’ll level up and get stronger, making compulsory battles much easier. Being stealthy means you won’t be as seasoned, although it is more noble. Even so, the map is jam-packed with enemies patrolling, items begging to be looted and secret hidden rooms that makes it a joy to experience.
“…even when you’re bouncing from throwing bones at cavemen to navigating a spaceship as a robot in the distant future.”
The willingness of Live A Live to try different things is admirable, and for the most part all of the stories are fun to play, with narrative twists and turns that hit me harder than I expected. With one exception, each chapter takes a couple of hours to complete, so it’s enough time to bond with characters so that their victories and defeats generate a strong level of empathy, before you shift gears into a completely different adventure. It could have been jarring, but it’s all linked with a visual DNA and a common thread of gameplay so that it definitely feels part of the same universe, even when you’re bouncing from throwing bones at cavemen to navigating a spaceship as a robot in the distant future.
Each chapter does feature the same style of combat, with a turn-based tactics grid. Your action bar will fill up, and depending on the speed of your enemies you’ll sometimes have the opportunity to attack more than once. Unlike other grid-based tactics games, Live A Live allows you to freely move around the grid itself, until you trigger an attack (or move into a square that is within range of the enemy when they’re ready). Movement is unlimited, but each step you take will allow foes to fill up their action bar, potentially leaving you vulnerable. While some attacks require close range, others target specific squares diagonally or at long range, with special abilities allowing you to cause damage to the entire battlefield. This means that fights are a constant dance as you learn the range of each ability you possess, along with those of your opponents, in order to achieve the best result. Additionally, health all refills after each battle, so you can go hard without worrying about being too conservative, that keeps things moving.
I was able to cheese a little bit in some instances, after discovering certain abilities that can cause damage at a long range before quickly darting out of the line of sight, but this didn’t always work well. Being able to retreat so that you can safely use a healing item or ability is useful before jumping back into close range, and you will also need to factor in vulnerabilities of each enemy (which is clearly marked after you’ve done specific attacks on that enemy type). Each character in each chapter has a surprisingly diverse range of attacks that utilise the grid in different ways; you unlock new abilities as you get stronger, so by the end of each chapter you’ll have a selection of interesting techniques to choose from.
Although combat is engaging, it’s the chapters that balance combat with other elements like exploration or narrative that were the most memorable for me; a couple of chapters focus on combat too much without much variety. In Imperial China, you’re a Kung Fu master training your disciples by repeatedly taking them on in single battles, which makes sense narratively but ultimately leads to a lot of repetitive fights without much challenge. Similarly, the Street Fighter-esque present day setting is quite literally just a bunch of back-to-back battles with nothing else to sink your teeth into. Other chapters do a better job of mixing things up to hold your interest.
Even though some chapters are more captivating than others (with some emotional gut-punches along the way), the story all culminates in a final chapter that cleverly integrates everything else leading up to it, which feels like a great pay-off. This final chapter is quite large in scale and scope as well, incorporating multiple dungeons and items that can really assist you throughout; you can skip some of this, but it may be to your detriment if you don’t spend some time exploring. This can drag out a little bit (I had to do a fair bit of grinding here), but narratively it’s successful in pulling things together in a satisfying way.
The HD-2D visuals in Live A Live are gorgeous, with lots of little extra details that bring the game into the modern era alongside other recent visual treats in similar styles like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy. Each chapter has it’s own distinct visual style as well though, with character and enemy design strongly matching the theme of each individual story. The glow-up is especially impressive when compared side-by-side with the SNES version of the game from 1994, and made me even more impressed.
It’s all punctuated by each story featuring rearranged versions of the original music written by Kingdom Hearts series and Final Fantasy XV composer, Yoko Shimomura, with some tunes that are still stuck in my head days after completing it. The voice acting is also very well done with a lot of emotion that lends weight to all of the main cast and makes emotional scenes pop. There’s a lot to love about the production values, absolutely going the extra mile in not only bringing the title to a global audience for the first time, but making it as stylish and stunning as possible while maintaining its own distinct charm.
While the overall package doesn’t feel out of place with other titles available today, there are some quirks that do make the game feel its age. Some chapters are a little unclear in where you have to go next and what you have to do to succeed, which can mean some meaningless wandering around, with random encounters chucked in for good measure to add to the frustration. This is especially apparent in the final section of the game that feels quite open – you’ll either love the joy of discovery or be annoyed by the lack of direction. Some sections of the adventure don’t let you progress unless you’ve gone into a certain room more than once, or require you to combine items to achieve a goal without much explanation as to why. The prehistoric chapter is the biggest offender, as characters don’t speak any real language, with lots of grunting making objectives and the path forward a little too vague at times. Still, it’s true to the original, so it makes sense that not everything was ripped apart and changed in order to remain faithful to the source material.
- Very unique premise narratively
- Lots of mission variety, with solid turn-based tactics combat
- HD-2D visuals are a gorgeous sight to behold, with great audio design
- Ideas were way ahead of their time in terms of innovation
- Some chapters are more interesting than others
- Combat-heavy chapters wear out their welcome
- Some old-school sensibilities that don't work as well today
Live A Live is an incredibly unique and endearing adventure, with multiple engaging storylines and strong combat throughout. Some of its ideas are so forward-thinking and intriguing that it’s almost shocking that this was originally released almost 30 years ago. While it maintains some weird quirks reminiscent of the SNES era that it came from and the pacing can be a bit strange from chapter to chapter, the beautiful visuals and catchy soundtrack propel Live A Live into the modern era and gives everybody the opportunity to experience a classic RPG that has a whole lot of heart. I’m incredibly grateful I’ve had the opportunity to play it, and am left dreaming about what other hidden gems just like it might be waiting to be unlocked and shared with the world.